Happy December, faithful reader of this blog.
Welcome to chapter two of A Pondering Heart:
Anna huffed, arms crossed over her chest, when she shuffled down into the small room she shared with Father. Father and I had spent time together in the evenings since before my mother died. He taught me to read, write, and do sums. Some might accuse him of defying tradition (only men need these skills). However, teaching his daughter—who in turn taught her sisters—was a necessity. With all the labor required to keep the farm going, he didn’t have energy for the record keeping.
I scanned the largest room in my father’s house rather than looking him in the eye. I recalled all the hours of sitting here to eat with my family. I recalled sitting around the fire listening to Father’s deep voice teach us the stories from the Torah. Now, the silence pressed against me like a weight. If I listened closely, I could hear my brothers whispering in their bed behind a hanging goatskin less than twelve spans away.
My father’s hand patted my shoulder, and I turned my gaze toward him. Black eyes dwarfed the portion of his face not covered by his mostly gray beard. Heli bar Matthat, my father, concealed a host of emotions behind those dark eyes. I blinked to keep the tears stinging my own eyes from betraying how weak I really felt.
I knelt like a common servant at his feet, my hands clenched together. My heart felt lower than the hardened earth beneath my aching knees. He was sending me away to Elisabeth. I hadn’t seen her in seven years. She came to care for Jesse after Mother died giving birth to him.
Elisabeth, wife to a priest, had no children of her own and could be spared to spend several months with a widower and his three children until a more permanent caregiver could be found.
“I will arrange for you to travel with a merchant.” Father’s voice, low and gravelly, revealed what his face did not: disappointment, a hint of despair.
“Abba, I swear I’m telling the truth.” I sounded like my youngest brother, Caleb, tattling on Jacob, who was closest to him in age.
Father’s warm, calloused finger tilted my chin upward. The waning candlelight reflected off moisture in his eyes.
“I have always known you were special, Mary.”
My lips trembled, smiling at his words. The tension gripping my heart loosened, making it easier to breathe. He believed in me. Warmth swelled my heart.
“You must not tell others,” he said.
A knot twisted my stomach. Not tell others? But once my condition became evident, they would believe the worst about me. Did Father expect me to bear their judgments silently? Heat flooded my face as if I stood before an open flame.
“They will believe what they want,” he said. “It is the nature of people to believe the worst. If you tell them . . .”
I watched his throat wobble beneath his whiskers. My shame would be his shame.
“Abba, no,” I said, unable to keep a tear from streaking down my upturned face. “People will speak ill of you. I can’t bear it.”
“If I can bear their scorn, you can bear it.” His harsh tone startled me. “We know the truth. Nothing anyone says will change it.”
“But Joseph . . .”
Tears choked me. The thought of seeing pain in his gentle eyes raked across my soul. His opinion of me mattered almost as much as my father’s. Joseph was older, but he had pursued me specifically, even though other girls had more appealing dowries. He would know we hadn’t been together. He would think I had . . .
More heat flooded through my face and spread down my chest until I thought I might burst into flame.
“We will meet with him together,” Father said. “I will explain your situation to him. Just the three of us.”
How could calloused hands be so gentle? He pulled me up, holding me on his lap as he often did with the young ones. I couldn’t remember the last time I was held this way. Safe, for the moment, in his arms.
“Never be sorry when Jehovah’s plans are not your own.” His warm breath, smelling of wine and thyme, tickled my cheek. “His ways are not our ways, daughter. They are higher. We can’t understand, but we can obey.”
My chin shivered, making answering him difficult. “Yes, Father.”
My father’s reputation would soon lie in ruins. And it was all my fault. No man would ever marry me. I was sullied. I tried to imagine sharing this house with Father and Anna and the young ones, carrying my own child bound to my chest. Anna would dislike me even more. It would be worse than a death sentence.
And so I sobbed late into the night. Did I even weep this much when my mother died? My pillow muffled the anguished sounds, so my siblings slept undisturbed around me.
I spilled so many tears that night I doubted the straw inside the linen cover would ever be dry again.
* * * *
Trudging up the switchbacks behind a donkey cart lost appeal by the end of a single hour. Forget spending three days enduring a similar view. Father’s merchant friend sang or spoke softly to the animals, two mules with bulky packs and the donkey pulling the small, rickety cart. He might have been alone for all the attention he paid me. Perhaps he didn’t mean to slight me. After all, most of his time on the road was solitary.
Apparently, the fee Father paid the man to escort me to the remote village didn’t include conversation. The void left plenty of time for unwelcome thoughts to invade my mind. The meditations swarmed like flies on a pile of goat dung.
One thought kept repeating: everyone would think the worst of me. People talked about the Messiah coming, born to a virgin of the tribe of Judah. No one understood how it could happen. None of them would believe the goat-herding daughter of Heli—namely me—would be the vessel Jehovah used.
If I hadn’t spoken to the heavenly messenger, I wouldn’t believe it. I pictured my best friend, Sarai, telling me she was pregnant by the Holy Ghost. (Isn’t that what the angel had told me?) I would want to believe her. Why would she lie? Yet, I knew it would sound like boasting. If I couldn’t imagine believing my own best friend, how could I expect anyone to accept the story from my mouth?
Father believed me. For now, that would be enough.
The meeting with Joseph would wait until I returned from my visit in the hill country. I had not seen Elisabeth, my cousin, since after my mother’s death. Had it really been so long? I counted my brother Jesse’s birthdays and decided it had been seven years.
Elisabeth’s kindness helped our family through a difficult time. After Mother was gone, she stayed with us for two months. She’s the one who found an acceptable wet nurse for my brother Jesse and showed me, just a young girl then, how to take care of a family. Yes, a girl of six years was expected to bear the responsibility for two children and a farm house.
Even then, she had been an old woman, my grandmother’s age. Yet, the heavenly messenger said she would soon bear a son. How could one such as she bear fruit in her womb?
It was a miracle of God, the messenger had said. How would she feel? Would I be able to help her? Would she believe me if I told her about the messenger? Somehow, I knew I would find comfort in her bosom.
And so I climbed on, breathing dust through the thick wool of my shawl, which I pressed tightly over my mouth and nose. I endured the rocks cutting into the soles of my sandals. When my ankle twisted in a rut, I pushed the pain to the back of my mind. I focused on what lay at the end of my journey: a mother’s warm embrace offered by Elisabeth.
Perhaps, I would have solace of my own to offer her.
Or maybe I wouldn’t speak about my problems, as Father had instructed. It would be months before my body revealed the secret. Joseph should be the first to learn of it. I wondered if he would think I betrayed my vows while on this excursion. Did it matter?
I sopped up a tear with a corner of my shawl—one I hoped wasn’t dusty. My heart ached at the thought of wounding Joseph.
When Joseph set me aside, no other man would want me, not even for a second or third wife. My fatherless child would chain me to spinsterhood. Father’s reputation would suffer, making it more difficult for him to make a match for my sister Mary, who was little more than a year younger than me. I would be shunned by the women in town. Being my friend would be tantamount to social annihilation. Who would risk it?
After a third full day of travel, we neared the end of the journey. Night fell before we reached the small dwelling Elisabeth shared with her priestly husband, Zacharias. Flickering candlelight offered welcome from behind the wooden shutters. Exhaustion made my legs feel like boulders, and the small pack of belongings on my back pressed down like a sleeping goat. Wrestling with my worries hadn’t helped.
I knocked on the wooden door. The mules snorted and stomped behind me. The merchant delivered me to my relatives. His part was done.
With the light behind her, I couldn’t distinguish the features of the woman who opened the door. Her voluminous robe covered her midsection but not the fact that she was expecting. A mound pressed against the front of her dark blue caftan. Her hair, pulled securely into a roll at the base of her neck, was mostly white with only a few dark threads running across the top.
“It’s late, child.” She tugged me into the house. “Zacharias has already retired for the night.”
I wanted to apologize, but she shushed me and hustled me toward the table where the dripping candle offered light to the room. Her fingers tugged my pack from my back, but I pulled it to my chest, unwilling to let her bear it in her condition.
I greeted her. “You look well, cousin.”
The shake of her head stopped. Her dark eyes widened, and the front of her robe bounced. The child moved! I wanted to reach out and touch the squirming mound but restrained myself. Anna had despised it when anyone touched her stomach when she was expecting.
“Blessed art thou among women,” [Luke 1:42]Elisabeth cried, dark eyes glowing with a strange sheen, words echoing with authority.
“And blessed is the fruit of thy womb.” Elisabeth threw her arms wide, as if to embrace me. “And whence is this to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”[Luke 1:42-43]
I allowed her to hug me, amazed when her child kicked through her skin and clothes and into my side. Tears leapt into my eyes. I had been more emotional in the past four days than I had been since my mother’s death. If Father’s wife’s pregnancies were any indication, it would only get worse as my condition progressed.
“Your greeting?” I tried to ask about it.
“Lo, as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in mine ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy.”[Luke 1:44]
Her interruption didn’t stop the babe’s churning. Did it hurt to have something rolling inside her like that?
I stepped back. My shawl dropped to my shoulders. Elisabeth’s spotted and wrinkled hands cupped my face. Her calloused fingers smoothed away the moisture worrying my cheeks.
“Blessed is she that believed, for there shall be a performance of those things which were told her from The Lord.”[Luke 1:45]
A strange peace engulfed me, and words poured from my mouth. For the first time, praise blotted out the fear.
The Lord had chosen me. It would not be easy, and most people would criticize and mock me. None of those things mattered. The Messiah was coming. God had promised this blessing to our Father Abraham, and now his ancient promise was being fulfilled. One so mighty could surely sustain me through the tumult ahead.
Both of us were crying when I finished my pouring out the praise to our Lord. Not tears of sorrow—tears of joy and shared comprehension. God had a special purpose for the sons we carried. Bearing the scorn of neighbors seemed a small price to pay in exchange.
As I write these words, once again I must say, “Blessed be Yahweh, whose words are as sure as the sunrise.”
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